Rapid expectation adaptation during syntactic comprehension

Alex B. Fine, T. Florian Jaeger, Thomas A. Farmer, Ting Qian

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

268 Scopus citations


When we read or listen to language, we are faced with the challenge of inferring intended messages from noisy input. This challenge is exacerbated by considerable variability between and within speakers. Focusing on syntactic processing (parsing), we test the hypothesis that language comprehenders rapidly adapt to the syntactic statistics of novel linguistic environments (e.g., speakers or genres). Two self-paced reading experiments investigate changes in readers' syntactic expectations based on repeated exposure to sentences with temporary syntactic ambiguities (so-called "garden path sentences"). These sentences typically lead to a clear expectation violation signature when the temporary ambiguity is resolved to an a priori less expected structure (e.g., based on the statistics of the lexical context). We find that comprehenders rapidly adapt their syntactic expectations to converge towards the local statistics of novel environments. Specifically, repeated exposure to a priori unexpected structures can reduce, and even completely undo, their processing disadvantage (Experiment 1). The opposite is also observed: A priori expected structures become less expected (even eliciting garden paths) in environments where they are hardly ever observed (Experiment 2). Our findings suggest that, when changes in syntactic statistics are to be expected (e.g., when entering a novel environment), comprehenders can rapidly adapt their expectations, thereby overcoming the processing disadvantage that mistaken expectations would otherwise cause. Our findings take a step towards unifying insights from research in expectation-based models of language processing, syntactic priming, and statistical learning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere77661
JournalPloS one
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 30 2013
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


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